“Are you heading home?”
The woman was sitting on Shadow’s left, on the bench outside the Greyhound station. Shadow felt happy, being outside. The flight home had lasted hours, cramped up in a small airline seat and his muscles had gone stiff. He was sick of breathing in recycled air.
Once he’d landed, he’d decided to walk the short distance from the airport terminal to the bus station instead of taking the shuttle. He’d gotten his bus ticket, been informed by the tight-lipped attendant that the bus had been delayed two hours, and then gone to get a pair of sandwiches from the tiny food shop inside the bus terminal. Thankfully, there had been a small grass lot to wait outside, and he’d taken his sandwiches there. Several smokers had taken over the tables and were chain-smoking in the chilly air with grim, single-minded intent. He’d managed to snag one side of a bench, next to a smartly-dressed woman who looked a little too put-together to be taking a bus.
His duffel was tucked roughly underneath his chair, and he’d made sure to carefully fold his bus ticket inside his passport, which now held many more stamps than he’d had when he’d left. The food stand man had been sunbrown and tired-looking, but had waited patiently while Shadow had sifted through his pockets for American money.
“No,” Shadow said, after swallowing a mouthful of sandwich. The meat in them was a little dry, the lettuce thin and limp, and the mustard that had been spread over it in recompense made his throat a little tight with salt, but he was still enjoying them. “I’m not sure if I know where home is yet.”
The woman seemed to mull that over. Politeness prompted Shadow to return the question. “And you?”
“No. I’m not going home.”
Shadow was caught a moment in that awkward gap between wondering if more polite conversation was required or if he could go back to his sandwiches.
“I was sorry to hear about your friend,” the woman said. She pursed her lips a little, but the expression only looked stern rather than sympathetic. Her features were sharply angular, too angular to be pretty. Shadow wondered if she’d come to Los Angeles to be an actress, or a dancer. He supposed that was the reason that a lot of people came here, and then found themselves surprised when it turned out the city didn't want them after all. The woman sitting next to him wasn’t unattractive, but she had a face that ought to have been captured in marble, rather than in film.
“We didn’t receive him, of course,” she said. “But we heard. We mourned for him.”
The woman had known Wednesday. Shadow was a little surprised. Wednesday's death felt like a lifetime ago.
She tipped her head toward him again and seemed to take his silence as a response. “Did you mourn him?"
"Yes," Shadow said. "I held his vigil."
She raised a careful eyebrow, but nodded finally and then looked away. "Are you afraid?”
The woman shrugged. “Of who you are. Of what you are. Where you belong.”
Shadow took another bite of his sandwich and chewed and swallowed. “Sometimes. I think everyone is sometimes.”
“They’re afraid of you,” she said casually, glancing at him. At least, he thought she did. Her eyes were hidden behind a dark pair of sunglasses that seemed to swallow light rather than reflect it. Shadow thought they were probably a good idea; the sun had grown brighter and warmer and the chill in the air was fading. At the table, several of the smokers had discarded their jackets. The woman hadn’t taken off her coat, but she shifted a little, and Shadow thought that she probably had to be hot with the sun hitting her now. “You make the rest of them nervous, Shadow,” she said. “Traveling from place to place.”
Shadow did not ask who ‘they’ were. “That’s too bad.”
She smiled. This time the expression lit up her face. Her features went from sternly handsome to radiant, shaving maturity and the sharpness away. She was suddenly very beautiful, her skin still winter-pale, lips a deep, pomegranate-wine. Shadow thought she was beautiful in the way poisonous things could be, using their beauty as a warning. He thought that he didn’t have any desire to sit closer to her.
“You can’t go back to before. Even if you wanted to.”
Shadow shrugged. “I don’t want to.”
The woman glanced at him from over the top of her sunglasses, and Shadow was surprised to notice that her pale green eyes had softened. For a moment, she regarded him before she tipped her pale face into the sun.
“That’s the right attitude to have,” she murmured.
Shadow waited with the woman until it was time for his bus to arrive. He left her with a farewell and an offer of his remaining sandwich, which he had realized he was no longer hungry for. She’d looked amused at the offer, but after a moment she’d taken it and folded the sandwich carefully in its napkin before tucking it into her expensive purse.
Now Shadow was regretting the impulse. The sandwich and the sunny bench had been hours ago and he was hungry again.
The bus rumbled beneath him, huffing its exhaust as it slowed to a stop. This was their second stop; the first had been in the middle of the desert where the wind had been hot and dry against his face. Now it was the early hours of the morning but it was still hot. There was heaviness to it, like a fog. Shadow stepped off the bus and immediately felt his shirt dampen where it touched his skin.
He was hopeful that there might be a vending machine with some candy bars or food to buy, and he wasn’t disappointed. Most of the other passengers were lining up at the restrooms or closest vending machines, and so Shadow headed off toward the other side of the rest park, where a few older machines stood alone under a flickering yellow light.
The night air didn’t help with the oppressive heat. Fat moths thrust themselves at the large overhead lights, but even their movements seemed lazy, like they had to swim rather than flit through the thick air. Their bodies beat frantically against the brightness above Shadow’s head. Shadow wondered what the chances were that the soda machines staring dimly at him would actually be refrigerated and the contents inside cold.
The lamps above bathed the rest stop in yellow light, but seemed to cut off almost abruptly where the concrete floor fell out into the scrubby desert beyond. Shadow couldn’t see anything outside of a few feet beyond the rest stop, the night was so dark. There was a faint rustle in the grass.
Shadow hesitated a moment, glancing over his shoulder, but when nothing else happened he went back to sifting through his pockets for coins he was willing to part with.
Something beyond the grass rustled again, and this time there was the faint whine of a far-away dog.
“They are far away.” A man had come up beside him. Shadow didn’t flinch, but he noted that he had not heard the man approach; for all that the man seemed to be wearing heavy boots and didn’t seem like the type to move unobtrusively. He was shorter than Shadow by a foot, and thinner, his lean body loping with rangy muscles. The man grinned, his white teeth curving up into a smile beneath a thick black moustache. “Were you frightened? I think you were afraid of them.”
“No,” Shadow said, because he hadn’t been.
The man didn’t seem put out by that response, but he cocked his head a little and looked at Shadow. “You look as he describe you."
The whining was still going on, but Shadow thought that other dogs, closer, might have joined in on the chorus. The man seemed to be trying to just keep out of the bright lights of the lamps, and it made his shape seem slightly fuzzier, half-lost in the shadows.
“What are you?” the man demanded.
“My name’s Shadow,” Shadow said. The humid heat and hunger must be fogging his brain a little. He concentrated, and found that the man’s outline seemed to condense more as he did.
“Shadow-Man.” The man grinned wide again. “Then where is your sun, Shadow-Man? Did I ever tell you of the time I tried to outrun my shadow once? I ran so far and fast I lose him in the Valley. He can't run as fast as me. But then in the morning I find him again-- the bastard came back with the sun.”
The man’s skin was dark, although maybe only a few shades deeper than Shadow’s own. Shadow didn’t think he’d seen him on the bus.
“What’s your name?” Shadow asked.
The man watched him, cocking his head slightly, and his eyes glinted yellow in the lamplight for an instant before they returned to black-brown. “Sent me here for you. Anansi.”
The man nodded. “Said you need a ride. I told Anansi that I do him this favor. I do favors sometimes. Once, I stole fire for all the people in the land. They cry and cry when the cold and snows come. They were freezing their little titties and peckers off until Coyote help them.”
“That was nice of you,” Shadow said, and the man called Coyote looked pleased. Shadow fed some more quarters patiently into the machine and managed to get out a couple of candy bars and a lukewarm Coke before he looked over at Coyote again.
“So what does Mr. Nancy need?”
Coyote stared at him, and then laughed. It was a high laugh, with yips that echoed the ones that Shadow had heard out, beyond the grass. “Anansi? Anansi needs nothing. Anansi is dead.”
Shadow stared at him, and Coyote reached into the front of his shirt pocket, pulling out a well-worn toothpick and began to pick his teeth. The artificial light glinted off his hair and moustache. “He tell me, take Shadow to my grave. He say you gone for his funeral, but you would have liked it. There were songs and wine and busty women. All things Anansi likes best.”
Shadow still hadn’t said anything.
Coyote shifted from one foot to the other, then chewed the toothpick thoughtfully. “I do this for Anansi. I do favors sometimes.”
Shadow’s mind was on the god he’d known, lithe and neat in his suit and butter-yellow gloves. Mr. Nancy was dead. Somehow, he was surprised he hadn't known before.
Shadow remembered the woman at the bus station. He let Coyote lead him to his car after he’d retrieved his duffel bag and told the bus driver to go on without him.
Coyote led him to an old pickup truck. It smelled strongly of dog and a little like urine, but Shadow kept the window rolled down as they pulled out onto the highway. The air actually felt enjoyable whipping against his face, forced out of complacency by the movement of the car.
The air grew thicker as the scenery went from gray and brown to vivid greens as the sun rose, and then to deep green and blacks as it began to set again. The truck rattled and groaned as they sped along the highway, but Coyote seemed unperturbed and so Shadow ignored the whistles and moans emanating from the engine.
It was strange, because he hadn’t really had a goal in mind when he’d come home. He’d only known one day that he was tired, and he’d missed home. The fact that he didn’t know what home really was anymore was beside the point.
It wasn’t Laura. His wife was dead and gone, twice over now. It wasn’t that house that they had lived before, and it wasn’t the people that he’d met with Wednesday, and it certainly wasn’t Lakeside or Cairo, despite the fact that there had been times he’d been content, even happy, there. He was homesick for a place he hadn’t been— or at least hadn’t been yet.
They drove up the long narrow drive to the Garden of Rest when the sun had gone down again. The gates had been locked, but Coyote had rambled out of the car, knocked them aside, and they’d pushed in without another by-your-leave.
Shadow was exhausted, not having slept well on the bus and barely in the rattling pickup, but he didn’t object to Coyote’s direct route. Part of him was just glad to have a direction.
The Garden of Rest wasn’t nearly as dark outside as it had been beyond the barriers of that rest stop out on the highway. It was the kind of darkness that had some silver and green mixed into it, so that everything looked a little shiny and the moon was high and clear in the sky. Shadow looked up at it and thought of a young woman with white hair down to her waist and silver-pale skin.
The woman waiting for them at the gravestone did not have silver-pale skin. At first, the only thing visible was the bulky outline of her body, and then something orange and yellow flared like a glowing, fierce eye. She smoked the end of the cheroot, puffing calmly.
“Mami Wata!” Coyote called, sauntering over to her. The woman grunted at Coyote, but allowed him to kiss her cheek. “I got to take a piss.”
“Get ‘way, you nasty thing.” She swatted him, and Coyote cackled. Mami Wata’s voice was rough, and surprisingly higher than Shadow would've expected. Shadow thought her accent was the deeper version of what Mr. Nancy’s had only hinted at. She watched Coyote bound away, and then shook her head and turned to look at him.
“Hello,” Shadow said, and Mami Wata blew smoke that reminded him, with a pang, of Mr. Nancy.
“Good of you to come and see him,” she said. “He’d of liked that. Of course, he’d have liked us all to be wailin’ and weepin’ every day.” She glanced over at the headstone. “Wouldn’t you have, you dramatic bastard?”
The stone said nothing, but the silence seemed to hold a tinge of hurt.
Mami Wata hmmphed, the sound grating low in her chest. She wore a long skirt that touched the bottom of the grass she stood on, and dozens of thick beads over her blouse that strained against her voluminous breasts.
Coyote wandered back, carrying a large handle of some liquid that sloshed. He uncapped it and took a long swig, before he handed it over to Shadow. It smelled a little like gasoline. Shadow sipped some, because he’d barely eaten and it didn’t sound like a great idea to be drinking that much when all he’d eaten was a candy bar and a sandwich a day ago.
Mami Wata refused the bottle, but she plucked the cheroot from her lips and positioned it carefully on the tombstone. Sweet-scented smoke curled in the air, the glaring yellow eye of the cheroot end twinkling as Coyote dumped a few healthy pours of the liquor onto the stone.
“And now we have the song,” Mami Wata said, and she and Coyote both looked at Shadow.
Shadow did not feel like singing. “I’m not very good at it.”
“No matter.” Mami smiled at him. “Tell a story. A story’s as good as a song, Anansi used to say.”
“I can tell a story,” Coyote said, drawing long from the bottle before he burped and rubbed a hand over his wet moustache. “I can tell how I once ate my way out of the stomach of a giant. Or how I flew with Old Man Crow but then they plucked away my feathers, one by one, and when I fell my tail caught fire--”
“Tell a story about Anansi.” Mami Wata’s tone brooked no argument. The silence and the headstone seemed to agree with her, the cheroot perched on the edge of it still smoking softly.
Coyote looked stumped, so instead he sipped the bottle again and poured out another slosh into the earth. Mami Wata turned her gaze on Shadow.
Shadow wasn’t sure if he knew any stories. He didn't feel like telling one, even if he did. Mami Wata's eyes were trained on him, and he had the sensation that the gravestone was regarding him too. He thought, and then after a moment told them and the gravestone about the time Mr. Nancy and Czernobog had come to spring him from jail in Lakeside.
Coyote fidgeted a little, taking gulps of the gasoline-like alcohol, but neither him nor Mami Wata said a word as he spoke. A few minutes in, and his voice felt a little rougher for the telling-- it had been a long time since Shadow had spoken at length to anyone. But he told the tale, and Coyote began to laugh along, loud and cackling. Shadow had the sensation that Mr. Nancy was standing at his elbow, nodding along and sometimes making pointed commentary that set Coyote off even more. He cast his arms out, a surprisingly graceful movement that was almost like a dance. His laughter seemed to echo through the entire line of his body, and even though it had to be a racket Shadow had the distinct feeling no one would be coming out to investigate what was happening in the Garden of Rest.
He neared the end, his voice rough and feeling ill-used.
"That sound like good old Anansi," Coyote said, gazing at the tombstone, and Shadow noted that though the man had been laughing, his eyes were now wet.
Mami Wata’s face was stern. She only nodded as Shadow finished. “That’s a good tale,” she said approvingly, then glanced at the cheroot, which was slowly going out. Mr. Nancy had disappeared from Shadow’s elbow as the story had trailed away. The yellow eye seemed to be winking at them. “You liked that one, didn’t you?” She pursed her lips at the cheroot, and then glanced at Shadow. “Anansi loves tales where he gets to be the hero.”
“He was,” Shadow said, and they watched the end of the cheroot blink once more before it faded, leaving only the sweet smell of smoke behind.
Mami Wata shook her head, and the beads rustled from around her neck. “I’d feel more sorry for him if I knew he weren’t enjoying this so much. All us making a fuss over him.” The thought made Shadow smile a little, and Mami Wata’s eyes were on him before she huffed.
Shadow glanced over, at Coyote. The other man was already wondering away, toward the open grass and the trees.
“You leave him,” she said. “He’s happier sleeping out here. Don’t like confined spaces.”
Coyote knelt down on the grass, farther away, and Shadow thought he saw the man streak off into the darkness-- or maybe it was a dog-- loping away on graceful paws.
Mami Wata stared at Shadow for a moment, then hmmphed again. “You’re a good boy. I can see why Anansi likes you. You can stay with me tonight.”
Shadow was tired enough not to argue. He only thanked her, and Mami Wata extended her hand, as imperious as any queen, and Shadow offered his arm before he realized he was doing it. She leaned heavily on it as they headed back to the car. Something had to be wrong with her legs, because she moved at a slow, sinuous slope, her skirt trailing on the grass. It was a graceful movement that made the beads rattle around her neck like a toy maraca.
He offered to help her into the car, but she threw him a look and swept inside with surprising gracefulness, despite her short stature. He got into the driver’s seat.
In the distance, a coyote keened.
Mami Wata’s house was near the shoreline, but not the side of the beach where tourists gathered and sunbathed. Her home was stuck between a marsh and a bunch of wet rocks that looked sharp and unwelcoming. Her house was warm, though, and she sat him down and brought him some leftover chicken that tasted both spicy and greasy. It was the first food he’d eaten in a while, though, and so he swallowed it all down under her approving look.
“You can sleep there on the couch--” she said, pointing. “And then tomorrow you be on your way. I’m an old woman. I don’t do well with house guests.”
She pursed her lips at him again, but produced a few thick blankets and a flat pillow before bustling off. Shadow lay down on the couch, and exhaustion took him quicker than he expected.
Shadow dreamt. In his dreams, he was out on the mesa, the hot air beating on his face and Coyote was with him.
In his dream, the sky was pitch black and endless, no lights in the sky. He watched as the stars began to slowly appear, in careful patterns that dotted against the void canvas. Coyote made a huffing sound, and Shadow could tell he was impatient. He tilted his head toward Shadow, grinning as wide as a jackal, and then held out his hands for Shadow to see.
In his palms he cupped a thousand bright lights, each twinkling against his brown skin. And before Shadow could stop him, he leaned back and threw them up at the sky so they clustered and clumped, fell and scattered, the careful constellations now lost in the haphazard pattern. From far away, a great being bellowed in frustration and the ground shook. Coyote yelped and leapt, running off into the mesa.
“Look at that idiot,” Mr. Nancy said, as Coyote skittered away. He looked up at the sky with Shadow. “It is real pretty, though.”
For a moment, they took in the brightness of the stars together.
“You’re dead, Mr. Nancy,” Shadow said.
“You catch on quick, don’t you?” Mr. Nancy was missing his lime-green fedora hat. He smoothed his hand over his thinning hair. “I told my son that sometimes you got to be dead for a little while. Otherwise people start taking you for granted. I think I’ll be dead for a few years or so, see how I like it.”
Shadow didn’t ask how being dead was. He remembered.
Mr. Nancy glanced at him again, and then smiled. “Not you,” he said, as if he could see Shadow’s thoughts. “You need to keep going. You got a while to go before you can lay down-- lay down in the green, green grass of home, like a great poet used to say."
He wondered how far he would have to go.
Mr. Nancy patted his arm. "Did I ever say how glad I was that Wednesday chose you?"
Shadow said nothing to that.
"Well, not exactly fair," Mr. Nancy murmured, glancing at the stars again. "Maybe you chose this. Maybe you were born to this. Everything is a burden, in a way. Even being the god that everything on this earth wept for, living and dead."
Shadow turned to glance at Mr. Nancy again, but the man had disappeared, leaving him suddenly very alone in the empty mesa.
The night shifted, the air growing from dry and hot to heavy and cool. This time, it didn't weigh him down. He was buoyant. He felt himself sinking down into a deep pool of water, felt it cover his eyes and his mouth. He didn’t panic, but his breath stopped in his chest.
“Don’t be silly." Mami Wata was floating beside him. “You can still breathe.”
Mami Wata still had that stern stare, and the thick rows of beads that covered her large breasts, but her dress was gone. Her curved belly melded from dark brown to a silvery, shining serpent’s tail that looped around herself. She regarded him dispassionately, her thick hair floating around her face like a cloud.
“Where am I?”
Mami Wata ignored that. Her voice was still high, but it seemed to carry better in the water, becoming more melodious and even. “What do you want, Shadow Moon?”
Shadow felt relaxed. He felt better than he had since he’d gotten on the plane back home.
“This is a good place,” he said. "I don't think I'd want anything here."
Mami Wata’s lips twitched into almost a smile. “Then you're stupid." She brushed her hands slowly over her shimmery tail, coiling in the water. "I want a full belly every night and pretty baubles for my hair,” she said. “I want my sisters to be safe and for the people to bring us their offerings. I want a tall, strong, handsome man who wants only me. I want many things. You must decide what you want. You decide what your destiny is, Shadow Moon. Your path. Your shining star.”
Shadow was aware of faint shimmers in the water like scales moving, barely brushing the light, just in the shadows. There was a faint murmur, not like a whisper, but like the gentle kiss of a current.
“Coyote said something like that," Shadow said, remembering. "He asked me what my sun was.”
Mami Wata looked unimpressed. She unfurled her tail and the movement was languid and graceful. “Coyote’s a damn fool, and you don’t need to pay him a mind.” Her hair floated along the side of her face like a curtain, and she leaned forward, letting the current flow against it to bare her heavy brows before she added grudgingly: “Sometimes he can be right, though.”
Shadow thought about the woman at the bus station. “I couldn’t go back. Even if I wanted to.”
Mami Wata nodded. “You can’t go back, and you can’t stay still. Look at Coyote. He still acts like times never change. He still acts like he did back when the lands were just for him and the buffalo. You got to move forward. Be who you were meant to be.”
Shadow thought about moving forward, and letting go. He thought about running away and ending back where he started. He thought about women with large, sad eyes, women with needle-pointed claws, and of women who kissed you for every reason but desire. He thought about thunderbirds circling overhead, of one-eyed gods, of grafts and of tricks and of magic.
The spring in the couch was digging into the small of his back. There was a faint hissing sound from deep inside the little house.
Mami Wata was frying eggs in the skillet. Her hair was bound up under a brightly-colored headwrap now, not a hair out of place. For a moment he remembered it floating, beautiful and shimmering. She gave him a thin-lipped look over her spatula and flipped over the egg in a quick, business-like jerk of her wrist.
The dream he'd had last night was slipping away beneath his fingers. There was the sensation of cool water, of peace, but the images were fading and blurring. He could only remember a feeling of contentment now.
“I am making you something for your trip,” Mami Wata said, crisp and matter-of-fact. “You’ll want to be leaving. No use laying about.”
“Where am I going?”
“That’s up to you, isn’t it?”
Shadow supposed that was fair. He watched her carefully use the spatula to nudge the eggs onto a plate before he headed back to his duffel to find his travel kit and her bathroom.
The little bathroom smelled faintly of mildew, and Shadow felt too big inside it. He washed his face and shaved with the small razor. In the mirror, the man looking at him had deep circles in his eyes, but he felt rested for the first time in a very long time.
Mami Wata handed him a small paper bag when he stepped out of the bathroom. Shadow took it and thanked her before carefully packing it into his duffel, along with his travel kit.
"I don't know what you did," he said, as he brought out both to the hall. "Or what you said. But thank you."
"It's a sandwich," Mami Wata said, but he thought she looked pleased. She hmmphed again, then patted his cheek like she'd done in the cemetery.
There was a clinking sound as he put his hands into his jacket pockets to pull out the truck keys. He pulled out a handful from of coins-- several with different patterns and small stamped words in different languages. He put most of them back into his pocket, but kept a large silver-and-gold one, stamped with a fat 2. For the first time in a long time, he tested the weight of it in his hands, rubbing his thumb along the edge.
He palmed it in his free hand, his fingers feeling stiff. He still managed to vanish it, making it reappear in his other hand before he pretended to pocket it and then pull it again from the air in front of Mami Wata’s nose. She raised an eyebrow at him, but could not quite hide her smile this time.
“You know some magic, boy,” she said.
“It’s not magic,” Shadow said. “It’s just a trick.”
“You think I don’t know magic when I see it?" she asked sternly. “Now go, take your truck and find your path. I’m an old woman. I don’t have time for house guests.”
She moved in her sinuous, halting way to the front of her stoop and watched him put his duffel in Coyote’s truck.
The wind was picking up, and the truck made a whining sound like Coyote's howl as he turned the key, but it started. Mami Wata waved at him, becoming a small figure in his rearview mirror as he pulled away.
Shadow thought he heard a whistled tune, rising high above the engine whine. It was an old Tom Jones song. The car picked up speed. He couldn't remember the words, but the song floated on the air. The words came back to him in parts. It was about going home.
He kept driving.